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  • Father David M. Knight

Cardinal Bernie Law—A Call To Consistency

It would be simply false—though partly true—to say Bernie Law (aka Cardinal Bernard Law), who was

guilty of allowing child-abuse in the Boston diocese, died December 20, 2017. And whether we do or do not say this spells the difference between belief and unbelief.

I got the news of Bernie’s death late last night from a lawyer friend who bonded with the then “Father” Law while working with the federal government during the violent days of the human rights conflict in Mississippi. He told me the funeral would be as soon as possible, in order to forestall hostile demonstrations by the victims of child abuse.

Although I abhor child abuse as one of the worst possible sins, I realized that any animosity against Bernie Law is a worse sin than his negligence in protecting children against it.

The truth is, the Bernie Law who committed that sin—and every previous and subsequent sin in his whole life—died on the day of his Baptism. And rose as a “new creation.” To say the Bernie Law who died in 2017 was negligent in removing priest child abusers would be a lie. Worse yet, it would be a denial of the faith.

The truth is that the Bernie Law who committed that sin had been dead for years. That is the truth of faith, the truth as God sees it. The real truth. But we deny the faith constantly, because in our words and actions we are not consistent with what we believe.

The truth is, by the time Bernie died, there was nothing to forgive.

In every Mass we proclaim Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Not “forgives” but “takes away.” If all of our sins were taken away when we died with Christ and in Christ at Baptism (Romans 6:3)—and if, in our earthly time-frame, all subsequent sins were taken away when we incorporated them into our Baptism by repentance—then it is simply false to say that the Bernie Law who died in 2017 had any previous history of sin at all. We rise out of the waters of Baptism a “new creation,” a “new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24)—not just forgiven, but innocent. We say, and believe, that “Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the Church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25).

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2Corinthians 5:17).

The Bernie Law who was sinfully negligent about child abuse died in Christ on the cross. The Bernie we knew later was a “new creation.” Not the same Bernie simply forgiven, but a new Bernie, who had no history of sin. Either we believe this, or we deny the Christian mystery of redemption. Either Jesus “took away” the sins of the world, or he just “won” forgiveness for us and we are as guilty as before, except that God won’t hold it against us. (And where did we get the idea that forgiveness is something that has to be “won” from our infinitely loving and merciful Father)?

When we begin Mass asking, “May Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins...” we are giving a healing, assuaging expression to our human feelings, but without theological precision. We are always in need of God’s mercy. But once we have included our sins in the body that was made to “be sin” on the cross (2Corinthians 5:21), we have no sins left to forgive. They were taken away, erased, deleted (Colossians 2:13) in the blood of Christ. They no longer exist. They belong to a life that ended when we died in Christ at Baptism.

We might ask God to forgive us seventy times a day; but only when we sin seventy times a day. Once we have received the forgiveness that takes away our sins, there is nothing left in us to ask forgiveness for.

To be consistent with our faith, we have to claim this innocence for ourselves and attribute it to others. The unfaithful spouse who has repented was never unfaithful—not if Jesus Christ incorporated him or her into his body at Baptism, with all sins past, present and future, and “took away” those sins by his death. We cannot have it both ways: either our sins were taken away and we are innocent; or they were not taken away, and Christian redemption is not the mystery the Scriptures proclaim it to be.

This morning we celebrated the “Mass for a departed Bishop.” We celebrated with Bernie in heaven, the Bernie innocent of all sin, the Bernie whose history retains only the good deeds that Jesus performed with him, in him, and through him. May he rest in peace; and may we all rest in the peace that makes us all one in the “new creation” of the sinless body of Christ.

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